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Ohio Supreme Court hears fight over new congressional map

Voting rights advocates argue the Buckeye State’s new U.S. House of Representatives districts will give Republicans 12 seats compared to just four for Democrats.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — The Ohio Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a pair of lawsuits challenging new Republican-drawn districts for the state's 16 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

The complaints – one brought by a group of individual voters and the other by the League of Women Voters – were filed directly with the Ohio Supreme Court and argue the new congressional map unconstitutionally favors the GOP.

Republicans passed the bill enacting the new map along party lines in November with a simple majority, amid Democratic pushback. The lawsuits were filed soon after, arguing the map violates a voter-approved constitutional amendment concerning redistricting known as Amendment XIX.  

In their complaint, the League of Women Voters and others claim Republican legislative leaders chose data which only included the presidential and U.S. Senate races between 2012 and 2020, excluding U.S. House races from those years.

The second lawsuit, filed by Regina Adams and 11 other Ohio voters, alleges the partisan favoritism is excessive, with 12 of the 16 congressional seats likely to go to Republicans under their drawing of the districts. The suit contends that the 2021 plan dilutes Democratic leaning communities by “cracking communities of color and submerging them in overwhelmingly white, Republican districts” in order to ensure more GOP representation. 

Attorney Ben Stafford represented the League of Women Voters during oral arguments Tuesday before the Ohio Supreme Court held via teleconference. The group and its co-plaintiffs, including the A. Philip Randolph Institute of Ohio and eight voters, argue the 2021 map is even more gerrymandered than the last congressional map drawn in 2011, which brought about the reforms in the 2018 amendment to the Ohio Constitution. 

“A plan where one party is favored to win 80% of the seats, when it only wins 53 or 54% of the vote, clearly favors that party," Stafford told the justices. "So the question under Article XIX, is that favoritism undo? Is it unwarranted? Proportionality gives us a starting point. Lack of proportionality between votes cast and the outcome evidences undo favoritism.”

Justice Jennifer Brunner asked about the data used and how that choice is made.

”Is the question of which database is used, what years, is that a policy question for the Legislature or is that a question of law we should be deciding? What kind of standard do we set?” she asked.

Stafford replied, “Ultimately the court can look at the evidence in this case. Regardless of what particular measure or metric one uses, the bias of the plan remains the same.”

Attorney Robert D. Fram represented Adams and her fellow voter plaintiffs. He argued that the metropolitan areas of Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and parts of Toledo are cracked and chopped in order to split Democratic-leaning areas to ensure Republican wins.

Justice Patrick DeWine asked about the division of counties throughout the state. “To be clear, you can’t do this without breaking up at least 14 county divisions, correct?” he asked.

Fram replied that he was talking about specific areas, not the state in general. 

“But, if you get rid of one divide in one county, you have to divide another county to compensate, correct?” asked DeWine, son of Republican Governor Mike DeWine, a defendant in both lawsuits.

“Yes, your honor, that is true,” Fram answered. “However, the question has to be how compact or not compact will the districts be. Noncompact districts were created for the goal of partisan gain.”

On the other side, Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Robert Cupp, both Republicans, contend that the new congressional map is the most balanced and fair in years. Attorney Phillip J. Strach with Nelson Mullins argued for the two GOP lawmakers Tuesday.

“This case is about a congressional district plan that fully complies with Article XIX of the state constitution," Strach said. "The other plans before the General Assembly split more counties and jurisdictions than the enacted plan.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor questioned the enactment of the plan.

“Could [the General Assembly] only look at that map? Could they make adjustments to that map? Did they have to vote on the map that was put before them?” she asked.

Strach explained there were other plans put forth, but this was the one on which legislators voted.

“A map presented after the fact is not very helpful to the court in accessing the plan because the relators, in this case, didn’t give the General Assembly a chance to see that map," he said.

“But if the map that was adopted is demonstrated to be violative of compactness or any of the other components that need to be considered here, it wouldn’t matter what the alternative plans were?” O’Connor asked. 

“Certainly, your honor, if the enacted plan fails to meet the standards of Article XIX,” Strach conceded. 

The justices did not indicate when they would issue a ruling.

The work of drawing state districts for the U.S. House is given to the Ohio General Assembly, which is uses census data collected every 10 years. The U.S. Census Bureau usually delivers this data in March, but this year it didn’t arrive until August due to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

In 2018, Ohio voters approved reforms aimed at eliminating the gerrymandering of districts. Article XIX states that the General Assembly needs to pass a congressional district plan in the Ohio House and Senate with three-fifths support, and it must have a certain amount of bipartisan support.

The plan is supposed to be passed by the last day of September. If that deadline isn't met, the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which consists of five Republicans and two Democrats, must adopt a map with bipartisan support by the end of October. If a plan is not adopted by then, the process returns to the Legislature to enact a map by the end of November.

The redrawn district map did not pass the General Assembly by Sept. 30 and the redistricting commission did not propose a plan by the end of October, so the work of redistricting returned to state lawmakers. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a new map on Nov. 18 and the governor signed it into law.

Because the plan was enacted without bipartisan support, it is only in effect for four years as opposed to 10 years.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, asked the Ohio Supreme Court for an expedited resolution of the cases for the sake of 2022 political candidates and county elections boards that must prepare for the May primary election.

The Ohio Environmental Council filed an amicus brief in both lawsuits opposing the new congressional map.

"The Ohio Environmental Council lends its voice to the legal challenges of the unconstitutional, gerrymandered maps because the environment cannot wait another four years for fair maps in Ohio. Ohioans are facing the direct impacts of climate change right now. Ohioans deserve a congressional delegation who will respond to these needs," the brief states.

Earlier this month, the state high court heard another set of arguments over new maps for the Ohio Senate and House districts, which were drawn by the Ohio Redistricting Commission. The court has not issued a ruling on those challenges.

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